bernard cornwell

Coming Soon In 2011 . . .

I used to think there was nothing better than finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before. Wrong. Even better than that is finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before, then discovering that it is the first of a series and two more books in the series are already out and another is being released in four months with more books to follow. That is pure heaven. And one way or another, it has been a great year for fiction series. Here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2011, after being left on tenterhooks by the last installment in the series . . .

1. Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Series.”

Cornwell is just about my favorite historical fiction author out there, and the Saxon Series is his latest smash hit. Revolving around the reign of Alfred the Great in the days when Vikings were still rampaging all over England, Cornwell focuses not on the devout and humorless Alfred as he tries to put a nation together but on Alfred’s most heroic (and reluctant) ally: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Viking-raised warlord with an unstoppable talent for killing on the battlefield, and an equally unstoppable bent for trouble off it. Cornwell’s last installment The Burning Land left Uhtred bereft of the woman he loves but burying his troubles in his favorite hobby–killing enemies. The next Uhtred book should be out sometime this fall.

2. Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.”

I’m usually a lukewarm fan when it comes to urban fantasy, but Jim Butcher got me hook line and sinker. His Dresden Files are expansive, complex, and always funny, a rare quality in fantasy. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard in modern-day Chicago with a gift for pissing off various forces of darkness, and a complete disability to back down from a fight. His “Have staff, will smite” attitude and steady stream of snarky one-liners has carried him through twelve books to date, and the last, Changes, was the most harrowing yet. Harry has lost everything, including his life . . . or has he? The last page of Changes is one long maddening cliffhanger, thankfully to be solved on April 5, 2011 by the next volume in the Dresden Files, titled Ghost Story.

3. Sara Poole’s “Poison” series.

Sara Poole is a new author I found this year with her novel Poison, a lush and unflinching look at the Italian Renaissance and the always fascinating Borgia family through the eyes of a very unusual heroine. Francesca is the Borgia family’s professional in-house poisoner, a young and deceptively demure-faced girl whose day job is to keep the Borgias alive and their enemies dead. Francesca had me riveted from the first page when she got her job by poisoning her predecessor and then calmly explaining how she did it; a heroine so amoral and yet so centered is a delight. I will be first in line on June 7, 2011 when The Borgia Betrayal is released–the second installment of Francesca’s adventures now that her Borgia master has become Pope.

4. Michael Grant’s “Gone” series.

Cross Stephen King’s Under The Dome with Lord of the Flies, add a dash of X-Men, and you get Gone: the disturbing tale of what happens to a small California beach town when an impenetrable barrier slams down–but traps only the fourteen-and-under crowd inside. Kids begin to mutate alarming powers and a mysterious darkness is growing, but the most interesting part of the story for me is seeing a shy teenager named Sam grow into hero and leader as his brainy girlfriend tries to re-invent a Constitution that will govern fairly and effectively over the increasingly desperate and violent band of children. The fourth book in the series, Plague, will be release April 5, 2011.

5. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series.

Is there even the smallest chance that we will see Dance of Dragons this year, given that it is now at least two years overdue? One character has been left hanging from a tree by a noose, another rots in jail, a third is stricken suddenly blind, and others have been MIA since the previous book. Oh well, this massive fantasy series remains my favorite in the fantasy genre, about which I am usually fairly unenthusiastic. Martin keeps his work close to history, and I always have fun finding the War of the Roses in-jokes or the Stuart Kings parallels. Let’s hope we finally see the fifth installment this year.

These are only my top five series. I’ve got a lot of reading to do this year, and I look forward to it. Special thanks to the publishers of Michael Grant and Jim Butcher, who were kind enough to schedule Ghost Story and Plague to be released the same day as my second book, Daughters of Rome. It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher figuring out what to do on the day of your novel’s release. It’s not a movie, so there’s no premiere to attend in a fabulous gown. You can’t start checking your online reviews yet, since most people (even assuming they buy the book on the first day) still need to time to read it. You can’t even go down to your local bookstore just to gaze at your book on the shelf, since most bookstores don’t stock your book the minute it is released unless you are JK Rowling or at least Richelle Mead. Last year when Mistress of Rome was released I wandered around my apartment and bit my nails a lot. This year when Daughters of Rome is released, on Tuesday April 5, 2011, I will be nose deep in the adventures of either Harry Dresden or the scrappy mutant kids of the FAYZ. Thank God for distractions.

And for those of you who were kind enough to tell me you were happily anticipating Daughters of Rome as one of your 2011 reads–well, it’s still three months till publication, but I did get permission to post the first chapter. Read here if you would like a sneak peek!

Sharpe’s Hornblower

Some historical periods are just more appealing than others when it comes to fiction, and one of the stars of history is the Napoleonic Wars. C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brien, Bernard Cornwell, and countless others have written volumes of fictional prose about the Napoleonic Era, which is stocked with enough passion, intrigue, violence, and larger-than-life historical figures to furnish a thousand swashbucklers. But two fictional figures stand above the rest for me, bracketing the entire Napoleonic War period from two very different perspectives: C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series.

Forester’s Hornblower came first, tripping his way through eleven novels, and Cornwell’s Sharpe followed in frank tribute through twenty-two novels and counting. The two series make splendid companion reads not only because they showcase two different sides of the Napoleonic War–Sharpe is a soldier who tears his way through the land battles; Hornblower is a naval officer whose career stays on the water–but because the two men are absolutely nothing alike. In fact, they probably would have hated each other.

Hornblower is the son of a doctor, raised without much money but plenty of education. Sharpe is the son of a whore who grew up to become a chimneysweep, a thief, a murderer, and eventually a soldier, and only learned to read in his twenties during a stint in prison. Hornblower suffers acute agonies of shyness as he climbs the ladders of rank and nobility. Sharpe is hated by superiors and nobility alike and could care less. Hornblower is moody, melancholic, constantly questioning his own courage and leadership. Sharpe bashes his way through everything with snarling defiance to the odds, never pausing for doubt.

Despite their differences, both men are such heroes. Hornblower may doubt himself constantly, but his exploits on the sea will raise the hair on your arms: the night attack where his tiny frigate captures a Spanish two-decker without a life lost; the grueling battle where his outmatched ship takes on four French ships and destroys three before going down herself; his thrilling escape from a French prison. Sharpe’s savage efficiency in battle causes his officers to shudder but General Wellington remarks that with an army of Sharpes he could conquer Napoleon in a month–and you will agree after watching Sharpe capture a French eagle at Talavera, lead an assault on the fortress at Badajoz over the bodies of countless failed assaults, and single-handedly halt a French charge at Waterloo.

The great pity is that these two men will never meet. Sharpe does have one adventure on the sea–a ship he boards from India to England ends up in the middle of Trafalgar–but he doesn’t meet Hornblower there. Hornblower has a few adventures on land–he spends two years captured in Spain–but he doesn’t run into Richard Sharpe, as much as I hope for it every time I read the book. Bernard Cornwell is a huge fan of the Hornblower novels, and would apparently like nothing better than to write C.S. Forester’s hero into one of Sharpe’s adventures, but copyright issues make it unlikely. A pity, because what a book it would be. Hornblower would be appalled by Sharpe’s savagery in battle, and Sharpe would be scornful of Hornblower’s endless ruminating, but the two men just might come to a wary respect after some mutual feat of arms.

Maybe the two can meet up in retirement. Both live to be old and happy men, though each finds happiness in typically opposite fashion. Hornblower ends as a lord and Admiral of the Fleet, venerated and rich, while Sharpe ekes out a cheerful living on a farm in–of all places–France. Maybe Hornblower will take a trip to France in his old age, looking to see the country he fought for so many years, and his carriage will break down at a little chateau in Normandy. He’ll knock to borrow a cart–a white-haired admiral hung with gold braid, with ingrained powder stains on his hands from all the French ships he captured in his youth–and be greeted by a tall scowling officer with a scar on his cheek and an old-fashioned rifle in hand.

I don’t imagine they will like each other even in old age.